WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
Strangely enough, the word wage (whether in the singular or the plural) has meanings that are virtually opposite to one another. One meaning of wage or wages is a fixed a regular payment for work typically on a daily or weekly basis. The other meaning of wages is the result or effect of doing something wrong or unwise (e.g. 'the wages of sin'). The first meaning of the word wages has to do with a reward of sorts for work done. The second meaning has to do with the undesirable effect or result of some wrongdoing or unwise action. Such action may not necessarily be punished, but quite often is punished. My concern for today’s column is with the second meaning of the word. Sustained deceit of the people in a democracy is a cardil sin. It may not be punished instantly, but the punishment is eventually meted out—usually with compound interest.
Tarun Gogoi’s government has been in power in Assam for well over 14 years. During the first five years, he laid the foundation for sustained deceit of the people. Obviously, the smartest way of achieving this is to pretend that one intends to give so much power to the ordiry citizen that he or she would have powers almost equal to that of our lawmakers. This is a form of confidence tricking that is the favourite weapon of all smart politicians. Accordingly, Tarun Gogoi started out by evincing great enthusiasm for the Right to Information Bill when he came to power in 2001. Similar initiatives were afoot in Parliament and quite a few States of the Union. But Tarun Gogoi saw to it that the Bill became law in Assam well ahead of several other States in the country. I remember a meeting with him in 2001 when I had the occasion to congratulate him on his concern for the people’s right to information and the expeditious legislation of the relevant Bill. I recall the enthusiasm with which he emphasized the need for such legislation in the interests of transparency and accountability in the administration as a means of tackling widespread corruption. Even today, I cannot help looking back in awe at the contrast between Gogoi’s first five years in office and his two subsequent stints of power. In the first five years, Tarun Gogoi’s government held promise of being very different from all the earlier State governments. People even believed that he really intended to tackle corruption more purposefully than any of his predecessors. However, by the time he began his second innings, everyone began to see the rapid deterioration in the quality of governce in the State. What was most visible, of course, was the sudden spurt in corruption in government departments. Rampant misappropriation and siphoning of the Centre’s development funds became standard practice. During the last 14 years, his government received Rs 20 lakh crore or Rs 2 trillion (= Rs 2 x 1012). Going by our standards, this is an astronomical sum of money. And yet, people are still having to ask what happened to all this money. The amount of public money received for development projects for which there are no satisfactory accounts—in some cases, none at all—is also an astronomical sum running into thousands of crores of rupees. [It is useful to remember that Tarun Gogoi is also the Fince Minister of the State.] In a word, the only major activity in government offices that was visible was the loot of public money taking place all the time with the blessings of the political executive. Of course, there was a great deal of talk about development in colourful government advertisements, but very little actual development on the ground. On the contrary, there has never been a period in our recent history since Independence, when quite so many concrete and steel bridges on our highways have collapsed. There have been several photographs in our newspapers of little children walking to school over rickety makeshift bamboo bridges put up by the local youths without any help from the PWD. None of this has disturbed the equanimity of Tarun Gogoi and his Cabinet ministers.
It is hardly surprising that bridges and embankments are collapsing at an unprecedented rate. Along with the escalation in the rates of bribes, there has been an escalation in the rates of commissions expected by our lawmakers on work done by contractors for the PWD. So overpowering has been the greed of our political executives that the commission on work done on PWD contracts has gone up to about 60 per cent so that we now have a situation where a contractor must complete his allotted work in about 40 per cent of the estimated cost of the project. In a scerio like this, does a contractor have much of a choice beyond using substandard material to execute his work and make a living?
The kind of veritable loot of the exchequer that has become the order of the day cannot happen in a democracy without a sustained initiative to deceive the people. This initiative is backed up by the kind of pretence that leads to the use of slogans like “Raijar podulit raijar sarkar (the people’s government at the people’s doorstep).” This is probably the worst fraud on the people in any democracy anywhere in the world. In the first place, here is the unique instance of an anti-people government pretending to be so subservient as to be at people’s doorsteps to render service. At least during the last nine years this government cannot plead guilty of having taken any steps that are in consonce with the aspirations of the people. The government has bluffed the people at every available opportunity about the state of Assam’s funds, about what the State government is really in a position to do about its promises (or rather Tarun Gogoi’s promises) to the people and about what they expect the State to achieve in the next 10 years or the next 20 years. Just as we have had no power planning for the last 40 years or longer, there has been no reliable planning for any activity in any sphere of government activity. Instead, as a cover-up device, we have had a host of ad hoc awards that people never expected and awards that may not get continued by subsequent governments.
Perhaps the greatest hoax perpetrated on the people of Assam is the pretence that there has even been any industrial development during the last 14 years. There has been none at all in the State’s public sector. Obviously there cannot be any industrial development in a State where the generation of power has shrunk instead of increasing. Likewise, there can be no real development of any kind in the State when there is no generation of any surplus within the State itself and we have to be dependent on Central assistance to the extent of 90 per cent grant and just 10 per cent loan and when the political bosses feel no sense of shame about our having to be in New Delhi with a begging bowl at all times for our survival. Wonder of wonders, even the tax revenue, instead of having increased at least by 1,000 times (leave alone a ratiol increase of 10,000 times) from what it was in 1971, has mysteriously decreased sharply and very sharply over the last three or four years. There are no explations for such bizarre decreases of revenue except the most visible ones of leakages and rampant loot.
So what is it that has followed the tural law of increase with the increase of population and inflatiory trends in Assam? Well, we have a fantastic increase in the crime rate. We have about the highest rate of trafficking in women and children in the entire country. We have an increasing rate of school dropouts, something that has a strong correlation with the increase in the number of crimils. We have a higher infant mortality rate and materl mortality rate than the tiol average. We have a much higher rate of highway accidents than most other Indian States. We have the highest unemployment rate in the country. We have a very high level of alcoholism. But Tarun Gogoi insists that Assam has made fantastic progress in the last 14 years. However, one must make allowances for what he says one day and what he says later on because he keeps forgetting what he had said earlier. For instance, he had said a few months ago that there was not a single government department in the State that was free from corruption. But only the other day he insisted that there was no corruption in the State.
And so the deceit of the people and a total disregard of them (never mind slogans like “Raaijar podulit raaijar sarkaar”) goes on well sustained in the last nine or 10 years. The people just don’t count in Gogoi’s scheme of things except when he needs them for his rituals. This is called democracy in Dispur.